What makes us human? Whatever it is, it can be found in Syria. When the earliest hominids first came from Africa they passed through Syria, and their remains, together with the tools they made, can still be found there. Humans first settled here and learned to farm. They built the first towns here in the Levantine Crescent more than 6,000 years ago, which grew into cities with great temples, statues, murals, writing, and codes of law. These cities in turn raised armies which defended empires and conquered others, such as the Assyrian Empire from which the name Syria was coined.
Modern Syria is built layer upon layer over the ruins of these empires. Many – the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, Crusaders, and Ottomans - are still widely known, while others are remembered only by historians and archaeologists. The cities they built still stand and are of World Heritage or Tentative World Heritage status.
The Ancient City of Aleppo, for example, is said to have been named by Abraham, father of the Jewish people, when he grazed his flock upon the hill. Dating back at least 7,000 years, it lays claim to be the oldest continuously occupied city in the world. Damascus, which vies for the title, is where Saul had his Damascene conversion after seeing the light of God and was taken to the House of Ananias in the Christian New Testament, a building that still stands and in which religious services are still held.
Maaoula is one of the last places in the world where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken. The Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus reputedly contains the head of the Prophet John the Baptist, revered by both Christians and Muslims. It is in Syria that some of the first mosques are found, containing tombs of the Prophet Mohammed’s family and companions, amongst the holiest places of Islam. Salah El-Din (Saladin), famous in England as the enemy of King Richard the Lionheart, is buried in Damascus. Crusader castles such as the Crac des Chevaliers litter rocky promontories, looking out over valleys which have been farmed for millennia. Syria is a home of our stories, of our faiths, and of aspects of culture by which we define our civilisation.
When I visited Syria in 2010, I was struck by how warm, welcoming and tolerant the people were. Christian and Muslim women walked arm in arm down the medieval souks, gossiping together like women anywhere. I have never travelled anywhere I felt safer. That Syria is still there but those memories - those people - are becoming lost in the horror stories we now hear daily, of a society in crisis, of refugees fleeing in thousands, and the massacres of those who remained.
In a strange twist, Syria’s history is now more a part of its present than perhaps ever before. Rebels use the strong walls of ancient crusader castles for defence, and buried cities house gun emplacements. The ancient villages and cave tombs which were abandoned more than a thousand years ago are once again occupied, but this time by refugees, desperate for shelter. Historic buildings are annihilated alongside their modern neighbours. Despite the best attempts of the Syrian Antiquities authority, operating under increasingly difficult circumstances, the damage to Syria’s heritage has been catastrophic, and it will be years before the full extent of the damage is known, if ever.
Yes perhaps the worst damage is to unexcavated sites, where looters come in droves with shovels, bulldozers and guns, driving off the guards, and gouging sites for saleable objects. Loose border security and low-priority international regulation allow an easy transition to the black market of objects whose existence was previously unknown, making them impossible to identify or return. For the country of origin, all that is left are cratered sites bearing scars of thefts from which they can never recover.
While many of these objects will be sold to buy guns, for some it is the only option in a country where the economy has collapsed, food and fuel are scarce and prices are soaring. An growing global problem, antiquities are the third largest illegal trade after drugs and arms, and is linked to both. The trade has left sites looted at a catastrophic rate not only across the Middle East, but also in South America and even Europe.
Even as the history of the world is vanishing before our eyes, this is a conflict that has left more than 100,000 people dead, and millions displaced and traumatised. The question must be asked: in the face of such devastation, how can mere stones matter? My answer, at least, is that it is not one or the other, but only adds to the tragedy. It is the loss of the soul of the nation, and the loss of a mutual shared history from which to frame peace, but also the proof that although peace has left before, it can come again.